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3 Changing Role of Social Partners: Development of a Co-regulatory Coping System

3 Changing Role of Social Partners: Development of a Co-regulatory Coping System

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6.3 Changing Role of Social Partners: Development …


and dynamically adjust their actions to fit the ongoing and anticipated actions of

their partner (Fogel 1993), shows regular developments over the first year of life, as

infants’ capacities for sustained and joint attention improve.

For example, in a study examining development and stability in emerging patterns of co-regulation in mother–infant dyads over the latter half of the first year of

life, Evans and Porter (2009) found that mother–infant dyads became increasingly

less unilateral and more symmetrical in their interactions from 6 to 9 and from 9 to

12 months of age. They attribute these changes to a number of factors that contribute to the development of co-regulation:

First, infants’ attentional capacities during this time frame perceptibly increase (Adamson &

McArthur, 1995) allowing infants to direct attention to features of the social ecology. Such

an increase in attention and responsiveness to social stimuli likely elicits additional

responsiveness from a caregiver resulting in ongoing interaction whereby joint attention is

maintained and communication about the interaction is produced. Similarly, as an infant

develops and acquires new motor and cognitive abilities, he/she is no longer reliant on an

attentive caregiver to initiate and maintain patterns of interaction. Rather, the infant now

has the capacity to build on pre-existing frames of interaction resulting in more interaction

marked by infant caregiver joint attention as opposed to the caregiver being a spectator to

the infants’ abilities. Prior research supports the notion of such developmental changes in

infants’ interactive abilities, including work showing that infants increase positive signals

(vocalizations, pointing) and decrease negative signals (crying) directed towards parent

(Kochanska & Aksan 2004). Such an increase in positivity directed at a caregiver likely

plays a key role in facilitating continuity in interaction indicative of symmetrical

co-regulation. However, this is contingent on a sensitive mother who appropriately

responds to her infants’ signals in order to promote ongoing symmetry in co-regulated

interactions. (Evans and Porter 2009, p. 153 and 155)

A history of verbal and nonverbal sensitive responsiveness from caregivers, as

described previously, results in greater equanimity (reduced stress reactivity) on the

part of the infant while also allowing infants to express, and to more intentionally

communicate, the full range of their genuine emotions and preferences (Bornstein

and Tamis-LeMond 1989; Paavola et al. 2005). Taken together, this set of experiences “enables neonates to develop into infants with differentiated emotions who

signal their motives to their caregivers through succinct emotion-specific expressive

signs, enabling the latter to react promptly with appropriate motive-serving coping

actions” (Holodynski and Friedlmeier 2006, p. 91). Hence, infants generally

become calmer, as well as more discriminating in their signals and bids, allowing

caregivers to “get to know” their babies better and to respond even more perceptively to their expressed preferences. Based on these interpersonal exchanges,

infants begin to develop a differentiated set of appreciations and action tendencies

that are integrated with caregivers’ responses to infants’ signals, including caregivers’ strategies for repair and comfort (Barrett and Campos 1991; Kopp 1989).

Joint construction of co-regulated “coping packages.” Over time, these

coregulated interactions, organized around infants’ communications of difficulties

and distress, allow caregiver and infant to build up a repertoire of constructive

interpersonal coping strategies that are targeted at the actual problem and are

effective in both dealing with the stressor and bringing comfort, relief, and motive


6 Development of Coping during Infancy …

satisfaction (for a similar view on the development of emotion regulation, see

Calkins and Hill 2007). Through these interactions, infants also come to construct

sets of distress appraisals and expressions that are actual representations of their

genuine underlying physiological states, emotions, and motives. In this way, infants

become aware of and can authentically communicate daily problems and requests,

such as hunger, tiredness, fright, or interest, transforming “unmediated, unfocused

body sensations [to] conscious cause-focused feelings” (Holodynski and

Friedlmeier 2006, p. 114).

These processes of emotional and goal-directed co-regulation can be considered

rudimentary “coping packages,” initiated by the infant through the use of

increasingly differentiated intentional communications of “the problem,” that is, of

their distress, internal states, preferences, and goals. These episodes, repeated

thousands of times, begin to integrate the sequential processes of coping, coordinating (1) infants’ internal experiences of distress with (2) their external expressions, acknowledged and mirrored by caregivers through attunement; (3) the

resulting appreciations, or appraisals, that guide (4) infants’ attempts to reach their

goals and are in turn coordinated with (5) caregivers’ external actions to solve

problems, soothe, and provide comfort, and (6) infants’ subsequent internal experiences of relief from discomfort and satisfaction of goals.

As explained by Holodynski and Friedlmeier (2006), “[t]hrough sensitive and

prompt nurturing, caregivers create contingencies between the elicitors (causes) of

[a problem], their babies’ expression and body reactions, their own interpretations

in terms of motives, and their own actions to deal with these motives” (p. 104).

Using their emerging representational capacities, infants can form subjective representations of the contingencies between these elements (Sodian 2011), allowing

the packages to be stored in implicit memory for later use, when triggered by

similar emotional markers of distress or similar problems. At the same time, these

packages are successively differentiated, based on the underlying problem (cause),

its emotional markers, and emergent appraisal processes.


Development of Stress Resistance and Stress Resilience

During the first year of life, social partners maintain a shifting set of conditions for

infants that support them in developing better and better regulatory resources and

coping capacities. In the most general terms, this involves creating a zone for

infants that is located in between the conditions of homeostasis and threat: Sensitive

caregivers can help infants maintain a state of biological integrity and stability (in

which they are not hungry, tired, cold, etc.) while shepherding interactions toward

the zone of “just manageable challenge,” that is, providing enriched opportunities

for exploration and focused interaction with intrinsically interesting objects and

people, combined with the availability of supports on an “as-needed” basis.

Spending time in this zone, where novelty, complexity, and difficulty can result in

moderate levels of manageable stress, may be healthy in the long term because it

6.4 Development of Stress Resistance and Stress Resilience


produces a set of experiences (described by Diamond and Aspinwall 2003, in

relation to emotional regulation) that create a “developmental pathway in which

early reactivity provides the infant—and the caregiver—with critical opportunities

to begin mastering flexible up- and down-regulation of affective states through

attentional and behavioral processes, so that future positive and negative reactivity

can be appropriately ‘tuned’” (p. 130).

One hypothesis awaiting empirical exploration is the idea that early coping

episodes provide a biobehavioral opportunity for developing both stress resistance

and stress resilience (DiCorcia and Tronick 2011). These two processes can usefully be conceptualized as integral parts of the continuum involved in stress reactivity and coping, as explained by Fleshner et al. (2011),

The cascade of responses that comprise the acute stress response is supremely adaptive

under most circumstances. For example, increases in respiration, heart rate, blood pressure,

pupil dilation, energy mobilization, focused attention, and immunity all function in concert

to promote successful fight or flight responses and improve one’s chances for survival. It is

important to emphasize, therefore, that stress resistance does not imply the absence of the

stress response. Instead, we suggest that high levels of stress resistance delays the “tipping

point” from adaptive to maladaptive responses and increase the duration and/or intensity of

stressor exposure needed to cross over. In other words, individuals with high levels of stress

resistance are able to endure a great deal of stress before experiencing negative effects.

Improving stress resilience, in contrast, facilitates recovery after stressor exposure that has

crossed the “tipping point.” In other words, individuals with high levels of stress resilience

require less time and/or treatment to recover after experiencing the negative consequences

of stressor exposure. Stress resilient organisms are capable of quickly bouncing back after

crossing the “tipping point.” (p. 498, italics in original, boldface added)

Animal models and interventions with humans (typically adults) suggest that both

stress resistance and stress resilience may be promoted by experiences of effective

coping during stressful encounters that are challenging but not overwhelming

(Lyons et al. 2009). Opportunities to deal effectively with stressful demands or just

manageable challenges in enriched environments typically result in short-term elevation of neurophysiological stress reactions (such as activation of the SAM or the

HPA axis), but they also have the potential to confer some protective or buffering

effects (also referred to as “immunization,” “inoculation,” “steeling,” or “toughening”) when the organism deals with stressors in the future. These stress resistance

effects seem to be both neurophysiological and behavioral (Fleshner et al. 2011).

Exerting control and stress inoculation. An instructive exploration of the role

of coping in the development of stress resistance can be found in the animal

research on the effects of controllability. This work follows up on the

well-established phenomenon of “learned helplessness,” in which exposure to

uncontrollable stressors produces subsequent behavioral deficits even in contingent

situations (e.g., as seen in animal studies as failure to learn contingent responses,

immobility, exaggerated fear conditioning, impaired fear extinction, anxiety, fear of

novelty, and other signs of stress such as reduced social interaction and exploration,

increased aggression and dominance, reduced food and water intake; Maier and

Watkins 1998). This more recent research on rodents has investigated why exposure to exactly the same set of noxious events when stressors are controllable not


6 Development of Coping during Infancy …

only completely blocks these behavioral deficits concurrently, but also prevents

these same deficits in future encounters with stressors that actually are uncontrollable (Maier and Watkins 2010).

As reviewed by Maier (2015), experience with stressors that are controllable

(which by definition involves exerting controlling responses and coping successfully) activates the (corticostriatal) act/outcome learning circuit, which subserves

the detection and analysis of the kinds of contingency information needed to

appraise and act on controllable events. This circuit then engages parts of the

prefrontal cortex (the ventral medial PFC) that exert top-down inhibitory control on

stress-responsive brain stem (the dorsal raphe nucleus or DRN) and limbic structures (amygdala) that would otherwise unleash the cascade of physiological and

behavioral responses produced by uncontrollable negative events. Interestingly,

both the occurrence of adverse events and the processing of control experience by

the act/outcome circuit seem to be necessary to program enduring trans-situational

“immunization” effects. This combination results in consistent activation of this

top-down inhibitory system in response to subsequent stressors, even if these new

events are uncontrollable and quite different from the original controllable events,

thereby blunting their impact and promoting stress resistance.

Dealing with challenges in enriched environments. Animal models also

suggest that similar stress inoculation benefits may accrue through experiences in

enriched environments where the chronic mild stress of coping with challenges

(such as novelty and complexity) and interacting non-aggressively with conspecifics seem to promote future stress resistance, perhaps via the mechanism of

blunting HPA responses to subsequent stressful events (for a review, see Crofton

et al. 2015). In a complementary proposition, some researchers have argued that the

relationship between stress exposure and resilience is likely curvilinear, in that

either too much or too little experience in dealing with stressors may reduce

resistance by sensitizing organisms to subsequent stress (Liu 2015).

Importantly, all this research suggests that it is not passive exposure to stress that

contributes to future stress resistance. Instead, it is active and effective coping with

stress, often in enriched environments, that appears to be crucial (Fleshner et al.

2011; Maier 2015). Adaptive coping seems to re-program stress neurophysiology

(perhaps via synaptic rewiring or epigenetic effects; e.g., Singh-Taylor et al. 2015)

and decrease subsequent stress reactivity corresponding to the neural circuit that is

programed (e.g., decreased activation of the HPA axis, DRN, or amygdala).

Moreover, these early experiences of successful coping also seem to trigger additional positive reactions to potential stressors, such as higher levels of exploration,

curiosity, engagement, focused activity, and social interaction, which may then serve

to re-expose organisms to enriched environments. It is possible that these adaptive

coping responses then amplify initial programming effects and create developmental

cascades which promote the capacity for arousal regulation and resilience, and may

even result in enduring and trans-situational transformations in cognitive, motivational, and emotional aspects of stress resistance (Lyons et al. 2009).

Mechanisms of stress resistance and resilience in humans. Although the

majority of the research to date involves animal models, such findings seem to

6.4 Development of Stress Resistance and Stress Resilience


articulate fairly well with analogous experimental studies of humans (e.g., studies

on control, reviewed in Maier 2015) and parallel results from naturalistic longitudinal and intervention studies on the long-term effects of contingent-responsive

caregivers and of attuned and enriched environments. All of these lines of study

suggest that these experiences may show promise in promoting stress resistance and

resilience in humans. If that proves to be the case, then starting in infancy (and

potentially continuing throughout the lifespan—since stress inoculation effects have

also been demonstrated in adult animals, e.g., Lee et al. 2014) opportunities to

practice coping in enriched environments that are challenging but not overwhelming may provide a potential mechanism for developing biobehavioral stress

resistance and resilience. These experiences may also foster active engagement,

exploration, persistence, recovery, and learning from effortful attempts to reach

goals and regulate emotions.

To date, evidence suggests, and many developmentalists have argued, that the

determination of whether early stress exposure will result in sensitizing or steeling

effects involves multiple interacting factors. Chief among them are the severity of

the early life stressors (with challenging but not overwhelming stress contributing to

“toughening” effects and resilience), the extent to which the individual can deal

effectively with the stress (with controllable stress contributing to greater immunization and uncontrollable stress to greater vulnerability), and the timing of the

stress (with the specific patterns of neurophysiological and behavioral effects

depending on the developmental course of the stress reactivity and action systems at

the time the stress is experienced; Lupien et al. 2009; Rutter 2006).

Everyday stress resilience during infancy. Perhaps surprisingly, researchers

have even suggested that this process of “toughening” starts already in infancy. As

described by the “everyday stress resilience hypothesis” (DiCorcia and Tronick

2011), “coping with everyday stressors influences infants’ regulatory capacities for

these typical stressors and prepares them to cope with later, more taxing stressors.

In short, everyday coping experiences develop regulatory capability” (p. 1594).

From this perspective, infants build up “regulatory resilience” during the first year

of life by dealing with the numerous stressors (e.g., hunger, cold, tiredness, wet

diaper, loud noises, or strangers) they inevitably encounter every day. Researchers

suggest that the “micro-stressors” that infants experience in their interactions with

caregivers are especially important in this regard.

It indeed seems plausible that miscoordination and asynchronies in caregiver–

infant exchanges can be seen as creating episodes that require coping. Such events are

stressful to infants, in that they trigger dysregulation and distress (registered in both

behavioral and neurophysiological reactions), and disrupt engagement. However,

dyadic coping, or the subsequent repair of these miscommunications, reinstates

infants’ emotional and behavioral stability and enables their re-engagement with

social partners and physical objects. As explained by DiCorcia and Tronick (2011),

“missteps in communication within the dyad may be followed by a reparatory process,

a dyadic coping mechanism that focuses on the process of transforming stressful

mismatching states into non-stressful states” (p. 1594).


6 Development of Coping during Infancy …

Such episodes, which have been observed to occur regularly by the thousands,

are hypothesized to serve as progressive practice that exercises the infant’s regulatory or coping “muscles” and improves stamina. Especially important in this

process is the caregiver’s “reparatory sensitivity,” defined as “the quality and form

of the mutual regulation relationship between the infant and mother during times

when infants’ regulatory strategies are overtaxed and they cannot self-regulate their

states, be the states negative or positive” (p. 1597). DiCorcia and Tronick argue

that, “[s]uccessful regulation accumulates into regulatory resilience which emerges

during early development from successful coping with the inherent stress in typical

interactions… Stress that is effectively resolved in the short run and with reiteration

over the long-term increases children’s… capacity to cope with more intense

stressors” (2011, p. 1593).


Summary of Transformations of the Coping System

during Infancy

During the first twelve months of life, infants are continually confronted with

demands, problems, and obstacles. Supplementing the kinds of external coping that

were initially the exclusive province of caregivers, infants learn to negotiate these

stressful transactions as part of a co-regulatory system created by both caregiver and

baby. These experiences should leave their signature in the increasingly sturdy

ways infants’ reactivity and regulatory systems become able to carry out the

functions of coping. Key developments include the emergence of implicit appraisals

(sometimes called internal working models or generalized expectations of contingency) that can be used to detect and interpret the meaning of threats and challenges, and pave the way for the practice of intrinsic coping responses based on

fundamental emotional and motivational processes that ready action systems for

engagement, exploration, persistence, and authentic expression.

Over time, these interactions begin to consolidate the kind of sensorimotor

intentionality that systematically converts preferences to purposes, and so are utilized to guide actions and communications aimed at reaching goals and dealing with

challenges and problems. As a result, infants’ newly constructed appreciations and

goal-directed actions increasingly participate in “coping packages” that are

co-created and co-scripted by caregiver and infant, and stored for use in future

stressful encounters. Together, these capacities (and their feedback in continuing to

program developing stress neurophysiology in terms of higher tipping points and

faster recovery times) may contribute to improved biobehavioral “stress resistance”

and “stress resilience” by the end of the first year of life.

Chapter 7

Development of Coping

during Toddlerhood: Explicit Appraisals,

Emotional Action Regulation,

and Cooperative Coping Systems

When all goes well, infants arrive at the end of the first year of life with a sturdy

biobehavioral platform that is increasingly stress resistant and resilient, programmed with higher thresholds for reactivity and speedier recoveries from stress.

From prolonged experiences interacting with social partners and physical objects,

infants have also begun to develop benign implicit appraisals about the emotional

and motivational meaning of stressful transactions (including miscommunications

and asynchronies with caregivers). Cumulatively, such appraisals may bias infants

to respond to potential stressors as challenges that are likely to be controllable,

perhaps not immediately, but eventually if they are approached with vigor and

flexible efforts.

These default strategies of engagement, perseverance, and other rudimentary

forms of coping, continue to be buttressed by the fail-safe backup of proximity

seeking, which provides access to a dependable, safe, and powerful source of

external support and protection (i.e., the caregiver). This trustworthy backup system

can furnish information about the nature of ambiguous stressors or suggestions

about possible strategies, and when needed, exercise coping actions on the infant’s

behalf. This secure base should also provide a foundation for action readiness that

favors intrinsic motivational systems leading to exploration, curiosity, active participation, and persistence, even in complex and challenging environments. Taken

together, these developments allow infants to participate in a co-regulated infant–

caregiver system that has created a repertoire of integrated interpersonal “coping

packages” for dealing effectively with a differentiated set of “problems.” These

ingredients provide the foundation for subsequent reorganizations of the coping

system during toddlerhood.

The second year of life ushers in the development of many new capacities (Kopp

2011). In this chapter, we focus on three of the changes most important to the

development of coping. First, the emergence of representational capacities transforms implicit coping appraisals to explicit belief systems that filter experiences of

potentially stressful transactions and guide subsequent reactivity and readiness for

action. Second, the development of self and emotional understanding, awareness,

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

E.A. Skinner and M.J. Zimmer-Gembeck, The Development of Coping,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41740-0_7



7 Development of Coping during Toddlerhood …

and regulation integrates intrinsic motivational and goal-directed action systems

with emotion, and converts “emotional action regulation” to coping efforts supervised by an increasingly self-aware and mastery-oriented agentic self. And third, the

development of the capacity for shared intentionality transforms the co-regulatory

coping system into a truly cooperative and mutually responsive partnership between

toddler and caregiver aimed at dealing jointly with stressors and challenges.

Crucial to these developments is the continued support of caregivers in

encouraging authentic communication and constructive management of emotions

and emotionally-inspired actions, sometimes called “emotional coaching.” Within

this scaffold, while working with caregivers on joint coping efforts, toddlers learn to

recognize and coordinate increasingly complex and differentiated strategies of

emotion regulation and coping. Taken together, these developments coalesce to

form a system for detecting and dealing with threats and challenges that coping

researchers may start to recognize as a precursor to prototypical “coping systems,”

an intuition that is corroborated by the fact that there is nearly complete overlap

between the “strategies of emotion regulation” identified by emotion researchers

and the “ways of coping” that have long been studied by coping researchers

(Eisenberg et al. 1997; Kopp 2009; Rossman 1992).


Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity: Explicit

Appraisals of Threat and Challenge

The development of representational capacities results in a major shift in regulation

and coping during toddlerhood (Denham 1998; Derryberry and Tucker 2006; Kopp

and Neufeld 2003; Thompson 2015). Multiple converging lines of evidence suggest

that infants’ burgeoning representational capacities allow them to progressively

construct mental models of the nature of social and physical interactions

(Thompson 2015), including core social features, such as viewing other people as

intentional agents (Hughes 2011), as well as more differentiated expectations about

specific individuals, as described previously in theory and research on internal

working models of attachment figures (Sherman et al. 2015). The development of

these representations is itself seen as the convergence of multiple capacities, as

explained by Thompson (2015), “[c]ontemporary social-cognitive researchers

portray the growth of early social representations as a continuous interaction

between the young child’s powerful inductive capacities (whether interpreted with

reference to naïve theory construction, statistical learning, teleological reasoning,

innate systems of core knowledge, or other processes) and the social experiences

that provide data for these inductions” (p. 216).

Although the empirical picture of the precise nature and functioning of these

representational systems during infancy and toddlerhood is not completely clear

(Sherman et al. 2015; Thompson 2015), evidence suggests that these working

models could be increasingly important to developing stress and coping systems.

Building on early preverbal forms of generalized expectancies of safety, protection,

7.1 Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity …


control, and freedom of expression, these initially implicit appraisals are transformed through their reconstruction as explicit representations. It is important to

note that all of the representations involved in stress and coping are more than

“cool” cognitive calculations. They are “hot” convictions—dynamic, integrative,

and laden with social, emotional, and motivational connotations.

Functions of appraisals. Because discussion of these appraisal systems emanates

from work on infant social cognition (Hughes 2011), attachment and internal working

models (Sherman et al. 2015), as well as emotion understanding and regulation

(Thompson 2015), a wide variety of content has been suggested. Most important to

working models organized around stress and coping are appraisal systems that supply

a holistic running account of the meaning of incoming experiences as (current or

impending) threats and challenges relevant to the self’s goals and preferences

(Lazarus and Folkman 1985). These “primary stress and coping appraisals” likely

integrate multiple streams of expectations that contribute to interpretations of experiences as threats or challenges, safety or danger, opportunity or loss. These streams

would include content such as the extent to which goals are enabled or blocked,

features of the intentions of others that allow them to be distinguished as “friend or

foe,” an estimate of the action-outcome contingencies and a sense of the potential for

control, opportunities for interesting exploration and engagement, the location and

availability of the trusted backup system (i.e., caregiver), and so on.

Not coincidentally, these are the same kinds of appraisals involved in emotions

and emotion regulation, which functionalist theories of emotion assert are, in fact,

the vocabulary used by the stress and coping system to recognize, signal, and code

experiences of adaptive significance (e.g., Barrett and Campos 1991; Diamond and

Aspinwall 2003). As explained by Rothbart et al. (2011), “Neural object recognition and spatial processing systems address the questions “What is it?” and “Where

is it?,” whereas emotion processing networks address the questions “Is it good for

me?,” “Is it bad for me?” and “What shall I do about it?”. Emotional reactions thus

include not only evaluations, but preparations for action and physiological support

for those actions” (p. 207). For stress and coping appraisals, the endgame of

appraisals is to supply interpretations that detect “stressors” (transactions of adaptive significance), diagnose the source of the challenge or problem, and suggest

alternative responses to engage, remedy, or evade them. Consistent with research on

stress reactivity, it seems likely that stress and coping appraisal systems would be

organized hierarchically, with top priority given to threat and danger appraisals,

which are accorded privileged status in access to attention, neurophysiological

activation, and action. Appraisals thus have the potential to provide “actionable

information” for the action readiness and regulation systems from three time perspectives: as predictions before stressors are encountered, as ongoing appraisals and

re-appraisals during active coping efforts, and as interpretations to guide learning

from stressful encounters.

Linking internal experience and social relationships. The representation of

stress and coping experiences in appraisal systems ushers in the possibility that these

experiences can be the objects of mutual attention and conversation with caregivers,

thereby opening a rich avenue for toddlers to explore the description, understanding,

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